It is hard to overstate the degree to which American culture has gone through a very dramatic change in sexual mores in an incredibly short period of time. Around the country, even very evangelical pastors of evangelical congregations have noticed these cultural attitudes seeping in among those they shepherd.
In such a context, it is not enough for the church to simply repeat the Bible’s clear prohibitions of certain sexual thoughts and practices, as indispensable as those are. People in our culture need to hear from the church an overarching “positive, compelling vision of God’s plan for sexuality,” as the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Treat recently put it. Otherwise, we may be engaging in an impossible task of seeking to defend specific details of Christian teaching while unknowingly accepting and arguing within the bounds of a fundamentally non-Christian framework.
Treat was speaking in a recent conference in suburban Chicago called “Beauty, Order, and Mystery: The Christian Vision of Sexuality,” organized by the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT). As CPT board member Dr. John Yates III explained, this center was founded to reclaim the practice of “ecclesial theology,” done by pastors within the communal context of the church, as much of the great theological writing of the past was done.
Yates noted that these rapid cultural changes are provoking church people to ask questions “about sexuality and sexual identity we wouldn’t have thought of a decade ago.” But he quickly added that being forced to ask such questions was actually “not a bad thing for the church,” as it “forces us to look at underlying questions,” such as “what it means to be human,” as we face “an age of anthropological heresy.”
Rev. Dr. Todd Wilson, a CPT co-founder, shared that when he began pastoring the suburban Chicago congregation hosting this conference, its neighbors referred to it as “the gay-hating church” in town, which “made it very hard for folk in the community to hear the gospel” from them. And then within the congregation, he saw younger members who were leading Bible studies and seemed like good candidates to be elders, except that they had an “affirming position” on homosexuality. He admitted that while he came into ministry thinking a priority was “needing to move people past the hard-edged fundamentalism,” Millennial churchgoers do not need too much pushing to feel compassionate—“they’re all about that already!”
This cultural “sea change” is of course not limited to homosexuality. The conference noted “alarmingly high rates” of premarital sex, adultery, pornography use, sexual abuse, and sexual dysfunction within marriage. “Millennials are awash in porn,” Wilson observed.
One speaker read from a sobering Vanity Fair article on “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.’” It describes how this relatively new smartphone-based “hook-up app,” and others like it, are nurturing a culture of remarkably efficient promiscuity among young urban professionals, in which “sex has become so easy.” That article quotes a college-student intern in New York City complaining about how she’s found that guys are “not really looking for girlfriends,” but “just looking for hit-it-and-quit-it on Tinder.”
Some of the shifts in views can be traced to the sorts of “relational crises” younger Americans are facing, such as individuals who get to know beloved friends and family members who are gay, and who associate traditionalist disapproval of homosexual practice with unloving homophobic jokes and slurs they have heard even church leaders make.
But the shift is ultimately more foundational. Wilson described the shift in the views of our surrounding culture as well as of many young people who passionately worship at evangelical churches to “a loss of functional biblical authority” and “the refashioning of moral intuitions.”
Underlying both has been “a profound loss of theological vision.” In response, Wilson stressed the urgency of the church offering a counter-cultural ethic that is more compelling than the “aggressive neo-pagan worldview” taking hold in America. At the heart of this Christian “mere sexuality” is recognizing that sexual differentiation of people as male or female is created by God, not us, as something that is theologically essential to our respective callings as image-bearers. After all, “[o]ur resurrection bodies will be sexed bodies,” and “Jesus will always be a crucified, circumcised male Jew forever.”
To win hearts and minds, our task is “not simply to persuade minds but also imaginations” by showing not just the truth, but also the beauty of the Christian vision. And even as a self-described “low-church, free-church evangelical,” Wilson urged a rediscovery of relevant church tradition, and bemoaned American evangelicalism’s tendencies towards “a way of reading the Bible that’s superficial” and excessive skepticism about any post-biblical tradition.
Wilson called on the church to cast a humane Christian vision of human sexuality characterized by joy (in the beauty of God’s design), tears (being “broken-hearted” together with folk we love as they face such struggles as transgenderism or having an intersexed child), and hope (trusting in Jesus to meet us in the sexual struggles we all have).
Wheaton College theologian Beth Felker Jones, a United Methodist, admitted that in our culture, “Christians look weird for saying gay people shouldn’t have sex.”
“But really, we’re weird for what we say about sex for everybody!” she quickly added. She declared, “Our hope is a bodily, fleshly hope and so what we do with our bodies matters!”
Since “God created sexual difference as good,” she took issue with those feminists who would seek to eradicate binary paradigms of gender as a means of women’s liberation. True women’s liberation, Dr. Jones argued, lies “in embracing how God created us male and female” – even when “people have acted sinfully and mistreated people” in ways specific to their being female. At the same time, she exhorted us to “recoil from notions of holiness that identify it with masculinity,” which at times included church traditions about women becoming less physically feminine (“having shrunken breasts or stopping their menses”) as they became holier.
Affirming the traditional ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage, Jones also urged Protestants to move past our present elevation of marriage (itself an over-correction to earlier suggestions “that only single Christians are the best Christians”) to affirming the legitimacy and value of Christian singleness.
In his address, Treat noted, “Sex is never just about sex,” as “what we attribute to sex is inherent to the life we live by, the wounds we have….”
The pastor of the Reality LA mega-church admitted that he used to adopt an apologetic tone in speaking about Christian sexuality, but then felt convicted “to never be ashamed of what God calls beautiful, even if the world calls it ugly.”
He briefly summarized the “beautiful narrative” of Scripture. “Man and woman were created not for competing with each other but for complementing each other.” And “contrary to popular belief, Adam and Even were not put in the garden to stay there” in carefree “eternal honeymoon.” Rather, “they were given a task.” While “the Garden was great,” the rest of the world was in a bad, chaotic state. “They were called to expand the garden,” and they were commanded to start a family through God’s creation of sex as part of that great project, since “they couldn’t fulfill their mandate on their own.”
Like Jones, Treat called for Christians “to lift up the value of singleness.” Single church members need to hear “that they are not incomplete,” and single as well as married people “need to understand that fulfillment is not to be found only in one relationship.” He called for a recovery of a Christian view of deep, spiritual friendship that is about more than seeing others as a source of fun or something useful.
One unfortunate limitation of my own bodily identity was that I was only able to attend one break-out workshop at a time.
In one, the Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and an associate pastor of an Episcopalian congregation, discussed applying Paul’s prescription’s for proper adornment in worship (in 1 Corinthians 11) to avoiding dressing in ways that are suggestive or that our culture would associate with sexual deviancy while positively dressing in ways that intentionally about “display God’s glory” and recognizing that what we do with our bodies in worship matters.
I reported here on another break-out session, which was devoted to the church’s witness in the public square.
Transgenderism was addressed directly at length in another workshop plus part of a plenary session, as reported here.
Perhaps the most memorable speaker was Dr. Wesley Hill, who is a Wheaton College alumnus, a biblical studies professor at Trinity School for Ministry (an Anglican Seminary in Pennsylvania), and a self-described gay Christian committed to lifelong celibacy.
He made clear his personal commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy on marriage and sex, offering extended critiques of some recent arguments for church blessing of homosexual practices. Among other things, he noted how some “affirming” arguments repeat the mistakes of old heresies, such as how Marcionism repudiated the Old Testament or how the Manichees characterized our physical bodies as “something to be redeemed from.”
However, Hill urged the church to think compassionately about people who did not choose to be same-sex attracted and who in many cases had spent “vast sums of time and money to try to become ungay,” and to join them in exploring “how can we live out our lives as same-sex-attracted Christians, as LGBTQ people?”
He told the assembled pastors and theologians that a survey found that 86 percent of self-identified LGBTQ Americans grew up in church-going families, and that the majority of these had potential interest in going back to church.
But citing a celibate lesbian Catholic friend of his, Hill mourned how “the church often makes us feel we have to make false choice between God’s love in the next life or human love in this one.”
“For too long, the evangelical church has harmfully relied exclusively on telling gay people they can just change and marry someone of the opposite sex,” Hill lamented. This is harmful, he said, because if gay Christians end up being unable to change to heterosexual, they end up feeling like there is something seriously wrong with them, like a lack of faith.
Hill urged us to think empathetically about “what does it mean for people like me to feel wanted, to feel wanted with positive joy,” and how to develop “practices to show gay and lesbian believers we have positive callings other than vocations of NO.”
He plugged his website, www.spiritualfriendship.org, where he and others write on such themes.
During a Q&A session, I respectfully invited Dr. Hill to respond to a critical statement on the website of the Restored Hope Network (RHN). In fairness to Hill, I should note that he did not have this full statement in front of him at the time, but was only responding immediately and off the cuff to my summary of it.
I noted how this statement was critical of using such phrases as “gay Christian” and “spiritual friendship” because of how the latter was suggestive of supporting close, same-sex, one-on-one, special “friendships” between same-sex attracted individuals, how the use of the word “gay” carried a lot more cultural baggage than “same-sex-attracted,” and how both are associated with the rather demonstrably false idea that a change of sexual orientation is never possible for anyone.
Hill replied that he shared some of RHN’s concerns. He admitted “there’s problems with and reason to question use of the word gay, but I’m willing to run that risk to communicate with people better.” As for the possibility of change, he agreed that “people shift” and did not want to deny this reality. But what he found really objectionable was eventual conversion to heterosexuality has been “offered as a categorical promise” by some well-meaning evangelicals, even though that may never happen for many gay Christians. Perhaps most controversially, Hill admitted that there were risks and temptations with gay Christians of the same sex intending to be celibate while forming special, covenantal “exclusive friendships,” and shared that that has not been the form of “spiritual friendship” he has personally pursued, but he declared his unwillingness “to rule that out for anyone.” He urged church leaders to “feel the weight of loneliness and despair” faced by many people like him on a similar level to their concerns for the risks of such friendships.
Hill strongly encouraged pastors and other leaders of worship services to intentionally have celibate gay Christians telling their stories to the congregation and pastors explicitly naming that they pray for people facing sexual struggles, including those related to homosexuality. “Even small mentions in a sermon can go so far for making people like me hear that I’m on the pastor’s radar screen,” Hill pleaded.
While practical, detailed how-to guides were not the focus of this conference, at several points the discussion touched on challenging pastoral situations as how exactly to advise a lesbian couple living with adopted children when they tell a pastor they want to repent and become Christians.
Treat shared some of his own difficulties as a pastor in seeking to reach people who were same-sex-attracted or had a transgendered family member. He urged the church to create environments in which members feel they can invite their gay friends.
The need for faithful pastors to carefully think through both the underlying theology and the details of how to be in compassionate and biblically uncompromising ministry with self-identified members of the LGBTQ community has become great, and will only become greater in the foreseeable future.
But there was one hopeful story that particularly stood out.
Treat recounted an episode in which a member told him she was leaving his church because of its lack of an “affirming” stance. He asked her to at least meet with him. In that meeting, Treat admitted that he had come prepared for a biblical debate. But beneath the tough exterior this young woman put on, she was not seeking debate, but had some deep wounds. In this hour-long meeting, they did not debate theology, but talked about her life, her pain, and the mistreatment she had seen of self-identified LGBTQ people.
By the end of this conversation, the young woman “had embraced a historic understanding” of Christian sexuality and promptly proceeded to contact her community group friends to apologize for quitting them and ask to return.
As the pastor explained, “She didn’t need to be argued into the right position” but rather “needed to be heard, to have her wounds validated, to have someone hear about and care about her story.”